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Shuffle of EPA's science advisers elevates those with industry tries

Shuffle of EPA's science advisers elevates those with industry tries
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A shuffle to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) independent board of science advisers will add a longtime consultant who has worked for the tobacco and chemicals industries while promoting a member listed as someone “not to pick” by the Union of Concerned Scientists to be the panel's chair.

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) is meant to serve as an outside sounding board on the agency’s actions, with 40 or so of the nation’s top scientists weighing in on the scientific backing behind a number of policy proposals. 

But the board has shifted under the Trump administration, adding more members with ties to industry and fewer members with an academic background, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. That follows a move by prior EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittCrystal clean water? Not if Trump can help it OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrett says climate change is a 'contentious matter of public debate' | Shuffle of EPA's science advisers elevates those with industry tries | Conservation groups to sue Trump administration, seeking giraffe protections Shuffle of EPA's science advisers elevates those with industry tries MORE barring academics from serving on the board if they received agency grants for their research.

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A list of new appointees released Wednesday includes the usual cast of academics and state environmental and health officials. But it also adds Kenneth Mundt to the board, a consultant with Cardno ChemRisk who critics say has a history of working to discredit science on the harms of tobacco and a number of chemicals.

“Kenneth Mundt is pretty much a classic product defender. He has been employed by the chemical industry on pretty much every harmful chemical you can think of to defend it and to downplay the science on it,” said Genna Reed with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Though Mundt is new to the board, he’s already being placed in a leadership role, assigned to chair the SAB’s chemicals subcommittee.

“They’re not even trying to hide that they are undermining all the independence of the Science Advisory Board. By placing him at the helm of the chemicals subcommittee they are basically announcing they are going to be pushing out peer reviews that are more favorable to industry.”

Mundt has worked to defend hexavalent chromium — the contaminant at play in the Erin Brockovich film — as well as formaldehyde and chloroprene, used in the production of synthetic rubber neoprene. Each has been linked with various types of cancer.

When he was hired to represent chloroprene manufacturer Denka, the Natural Resources Defense Council called Mundt “the right person for the job, having previously defended chemical and tobacco industries. As a consultant for Philip Morris and the tobacco industry, Mundt attacked the National Cancer Institute’s findings that low-tar cigarettes could cause lung cancer.”

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Multiple calls to Cardno ChemRisk's headquarters went unanswered. EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said none of the nominees to the SAB garnered any negative feedback during the comment period. 

"The administrator has taken a thoughtful and informed approach to appointing SAB members this cycle, including two [federal register] notices requesting nominations and a final comment period on the full list of nominees," she said, calling all the new members "fully qualified."

John Graham, who was appointed to the board in 2017, will now be its new chair alongside his role as a professor of environmental affairs at Indiana University.

Prior to his academic role, he worked in the George W. Bush administration as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and led the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

Graham has opposed various rules that were also opposed by automakers — the same group that funded his research at Harvard.

In 2017, the Union of Concerned Scientists listed him on a “who not to pick” list for the SAB, calling him a regulatory reform advocate. 

“I’ve known John for years and he is really one of the best environmental scholars this country has to offer,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds | Trump reverses course, approving assistance for California wildfires | Climate change, national security among topics for final Trump-Biden debate EPA may violate courts with new rule extending life of unlined coal ash ponds EPA allows use of radioactive material in some road construction MORE said in a release announcing his promotion.

“His advice has been influential during his time on the SAB and I am looking to his future advice as Board Chair," Wheeler added.

The EPA also created a new vice chair position on the SAB, something the agency said was “established to ensure smooth operation of the board.”

Barbara Beck, who has served on the SAB for two years, will fill that role. 

Beck, like Mundt, has a long history of working for chemical consulting firms. Her company, Gradient, has worked to defend a number of controversial chemicals and products

She has published a study questioning ties between varying levels of lead exposure and brain impacts in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

And new to the board is Joseph Haney, who like outgoing board chairman Michael Honeycutt, works at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“The Science Advisory Board is supposed to cover the breadth of expertise in different scientific fields. That has been disputed by Pruitt and Wheeler who have focused more on geographic diversity as their representation standard,” Reed said.

“But still there are lots of other state departments they could have selected someone from instead of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which has been known to have less stringent standards for chemicals considered hazardous to public health," she continued.

The EPA touted its changes as a way the administration has “reestablished the importance of the SAB and utilized its very talented experts to provide advice on those issues critical to the agency and its mission.”

But Reed said the growing industry representation on the board is a problem.

“Placing individuals who work at these firms on these advisory committees, what it will do is give industry the opportunity and platform to present that same sowing of doubt and that same distorting of the science that will ultimately lead to less independent, less objective Science Advisory Board," she said.

Rachel Frazin contributed to this report, which was updated at 3:49 p.m.